Leo Zeilig looks back at the life and work of Frantz Fanon, the author, psychiatrist and anti-colonial revolutionary, died 50 years ago, and interviews some of those who knew him
‘If Africa is to be free we cannot beg. We must tear away by force what belongs to us. All forms of struggle must be adopted, not excluding violence.” Those were the words of Frantz Fanon addressing an anti-colonial conference in Ghana in 1958.
Fanon had become a revolutionary during the great wave of struggles in the 1950s that forced an end to colonialism. Today, 50 years after his death, his work again has immense significance as new revolutions sweep the world.
Fanon was born in 1925 to a middle class family on the Caribbean island of Martinique. The country was, and still is, a colonial possession of France.
He was brought up to believe that he was French. In 1944 Fanon left the island to fight in the Second World War. But he was bitterly disappointed by his experience of racism in the Free French Army.
After the war Fanon moved to France to study medicine and psychiatry. While studying he wrote his first book, Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon argued that racism is a relationship that orbits around ideas of superiority and inferiority, with whiteness at the apex of a supposed hierarchy of races.
At the end of 1953 Fanon took a job in Blida-Joinville, a town a short distance from Algeria’s capital Algiers. Algeria was then a territory of France.
The French had invaded Algeria in 1830. The country’s population fell by two million over the next 20 years. Schooling was decimated. Agricultural land was turned over to European settlers and businesses that planted vineyards.
But by the 1930s a nationalist movement had started to develop. The Second World War saw an intensification of resistance and trade union militancy. This was met with vicious repression.
On 8 May 1945 there was a crackdown in the town of Sétif. Over 20,000 Algerians were massacred. This hardened anger inside the Algerian nationalist movement. In 1954 the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) was born. It launched an armed struggle shortly afterwards.
Fanon became active in the escalating revolutionary struggle against the French. He helped to turn Blida’s hospital into a place where wounded FLN fighters could be patched up and given psychiatric treatment.
Forced into exile in 1957, Fanon became one of the greatest champions of the Algerian revolution. He worked on the FLN’s newspaper in Tunisia.
Two years later Fanon wrote A Dying Colonialism, one of his best books, yet one that is little read these days. It is a brilliant celebration and description of how ordinary people are transformed by revolutionary struggle.
He wrote about how old habits were overturned in the struggle, paying attention to how the role of women in Algerian society was transformed.
Fanon was diagnosed with leukaemia towards the end of 1960. He knew that his time was limited and worked at a phenomenal speed to complete his masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth.
The book shows Fanon as a revolutionary thinker desperately trying to work through the pressing problems facing the movement.
Fanon was grappling with a paradox. While people had “given everything in the difficult moments of the struggle”, after these struggles they were left “with their empty hands and bellies”. They began to doubt the “reality of victory”.
He noted how the great achievements of revolutionary action had been stolen by the appointed middle class leadership of the national struggle.
The book argues for confrontation with the national middle class, whose power had to be extinguished before it could break the revolutionary spirit rising from below.
Fanon saw first hand how the radical rhetoric of national independence failed to deliver real change.
For instance, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first independent leader, spoke like a radical but was cautious about unleashing left wing forces inside the country that he ruled.
Léopold Senghor, the new president of Senegal, was a famous poet and nationalist leader. But he voted with the French assembly for emergency powers to break the Algerian revolution.
National independence was vital, but by itself it would become a “curse”. Instead Fanon called for a new humanism in the form of an international unity from below.
Fanon understood that revolutionary struggle meant challenging and unseating the wealth and position of a powerful minority, which would require force. No entrenched power, he argued, had ever given up without a fight.
More controversially, Fanon believed that the violence of the oppressed also had a “therapeutic” role. He argued that seeing the powerful defeated helped reverse the crippling sense of inferiority that invaded the lives of the poor.
Fanon emphasised the role of the peasantry in revolutionary struggle. He wrote that “in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain”.
He accepted a widespread argument that the organised working class had been effectively “bought off” with the profits of imperialist exploitation.
But Fanon was wrong about the role of the working class. In Algeria, it was working class protests and strikes on 11 December 1960 that forced France to realise the game was over.
Fanon was a brilliant and angry champion of revolution. But his refusal to see how a movement could be centred on the power of the working class limited his ideas.
Nevertheless there is a huge amount in Fanon’s writing and life that we can learn from. He understood that real liberation was impossible without the self-activity of the poor—and that by unleashing their anger the world could be turned upside down.